In Cambodia, Panetta Reaffirms Ties With Authoritarian Government

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SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- The United States on Friday reaffirmed its military ties with the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, but Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta also warned the country about its long record of human rights abuses.

After attending a regional security conference and a separate meeting with Gen. Tea Banh, Cambodia's defense minister, Mr. Panetta said he wanted to emphasize the support of the United States "for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for the rule of law and for the right of full and fair participation in the political process."

Mr. Panetta was in Cambodia as part of the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia that seeks to bolster military, economic and diplomatic relationships in the region and serve as a counterweight to China's rising influence. His visit came four days ahead of a planned trip here by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama, who will be the first sitting American president to visit the country.

The trips have drawn criticism from human rights groups, who say the administration, in its rush to make strategic friends in the region, is ignoring the record of people like Mr. Hun Sen, who has a bloody, decades-long history of crushing political dissent. A Human Rights Watch report released this week recounted numerous killings of labor leaders, journalists and opposition leaders in Cambodia over the last 20 years.

Cambodia has long and close ties to China, but United States Special Forces are now providing counterterrorism training to the Cambodian military and the two countries also conduct small-scale joint exercises. Still, the defense relationship is in the early stages and Mr. Panetta's aides said the Pentagon remained wary of stepping up the military relationship with Mr. Hun Sen's government.

Mr. Panetta announced no major American-Cambodian initiatives -- called "deliverables" in the shorthand of government -- as a result of his visit. Aides traveling with him said the main accomplishment was the symbolic value of the American defense secretary's attending the regional meeting, a gathering of Southeast Asian defense ministers that previous administrations have ignored.

"The big deliverable in Cambodia is the secretary himself," a senior defense official said.

Mr. Panetta did announce additional joint American military exercises with Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Brunei. He also spoke over lunch on Friday with the defense minister of Myanmar, also known as Burma, which Mr. Obama will visit in his trip next week -- another first for an American president.

Before leaving Siem Reap, Mr. Panetta briefly toured the nearby temples of Angkor Wat.

On a stop earlier this week in Perth, Australia, Mr. Panetta announced that the Pentagon was moving two surveillance systems -- an advanced C-band radar system and an optical telescope built by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- to Australia. The systems will allow the United States to track space debris as well as satellites, including those of China. The radar is currently situated in Antigua and the telescope is in New Mexico.

In Bangkok, Mr. Panetta signed a new defense cooperation agreement with the Thai government, updating an existing one that was signed in 1962 by the American secretary of state at the time, Dean Rusk.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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